Top horses, top riders rein in record numbers

Fair Hill: A three-part challenge under way this weekend draws thousands of spectators to Cecil County.

October 26, 2003|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

Tony Krol was a marked contrast yesterday to the lathered athletes he watched just a few yards away on a sun-dappled hillside in Cecil County.

While some of the world's most accomplished horses and riders navigated the jumps and water hazards of an international cross-country competition, Krol lolled on a blanket, having a wine-and-sandwiches picnic with his wife and friends. "The athleticism is truly amazing," Krol, of Haddonfield, N.J., said just before watching 2000 Olympic gold medalist David O'Connor ride by on Dunston Celtic and take a series of long jumps.

Krol and his wife, Gail, were just the kind of first-time spectators organizers of the Fair Hill International hoped to draw this year to one of the nation's leading triathlon-like competitions for horses and riders, a sport known as "eventing." Organizers estimated yesterday's crowd at 10,000, one of the largest in the 14-year history of eventing at Fair Hill, and said the competitions would pump well over $3 million into the region's economy.

Part of the attraction for spectators this year was the opportunity to watch two competitions on the same days over the same course: the U.S. Equestrian Team Fall Eventing Championship and the Pan American Eventing Championship, a competition held every four years that draws riders from all over the world. A beautiful autumn day, and grounds softened but not saturated by previous rains, created excellent conditions for both athletes and spectators during yesterday's second part of the eventing competitions.

"It could not be more perfect," U.S. Pan Am team member Robert Costello said of the course as he relaxed in a VIP tent, watching competitors on a television monitor. "This is probably the most people I've seen at Fair Hill. The bigger the crowd, the better."

Fair Hill International Executive Director Lou Morris agreed. With the lines for parking longer than usual and the wait at two sandwich vendors stretching to 20 minutes at the height of the lunch rush, Morris was grateful most spectators were taking any delays in stride. He attributed the large turnout for the competition and festival at Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area partly to new radio and television ads.

"They're not well-known outside equestrian circles" he said of eventing's athletes, "but once you've seen the athletic riding and animals, it's wonderful."

Eventing dates to the 1912 Olympic games in Stockholm, where it was introduced as the ultimate three-part test for a cavalry horse.

First comes dressage, made up of complicated, precise movements designed to show a horse's parade ground abilities. The second discipline is the endurance/cross-country competition held yesterday, a mix of tests designed to highlight speed, endurance and jumping ability.

The Pan Am and USET championships continue today at 10 a.m. with the third discipline, show jumping.

The sport's spectators primarily are knowledgeable horse lovers, including many who ride at less competitive levels. Current and former Olympians who could walk unnoticed among most crowds were talked-about celebrities at Fair Hill yesterday. Among them: Gaithersburg native O'Connor, who now lives in The Plains, Va.; North Carolina's Costello, a member of the U.S. team at the Sydney Olympics; and Lana Wright of Chesapeake City, who grew up riding in fox hunts on the Fair Hill property, once owned by her relative William duPont Jr. She was the first woman member of an Olympic eventing team when she rode for the United States in 1964 in Tokyo.

"It started equestrian and it's been equestrian," Wright said of the 5,600-acre property, on which 400 to 500 acres are used for the competitions. Wright is now co-president of the Fair Hill International competitions.

Although she acknowledged that eventing still draws a crowd of insiders, she noted that the number of competitions and participants is growing at all levels nationally. "My God, there are thousands of these," she said.

Yesterday's events were part of the Fair Hill International Festival in the Country, which includes carriage-driving competitions, dog agility trials, miniature horses and a tent village of vendors hawking everything from Lexus sport utility vehicles to jewelry, tack and clothes.

More than 600 volunteers were directing traffic, providing security and whistling spectators out of the way of charging horses. About 100 horses participated in eventing yesterday, with another 30 in the carriage-driving competition. About 600 riders, grooms and handlers were with them, said Fair Hill spokesman Marty Bauman.

Leashed dogs were everywhere, as were human companions fiercely loyal to the sport.

Cora Cushny, who lives in Lexington, Ky., fell in love with eventing when she first saw it in 1959. She decided to follow it from place to place, making movies she sold to pony clubs. She and her husband, a lawyer, operate a business that provides results, photos and editorials through an online publication called www.eventingetc.com.

Yesterday, Cushny sat in the press tent, decked out in a Pan Am hat, jacket and pin and a Fair Hill sweatshirt as she typed results into her laptop. Her dog Misty, known to take a dip after competitions in the water jumps, slept nearby.

Across the way in a vast vendor area, James Montgomery of Denton also had found a way to partly finance his family's love of horses. Montgomery, a financial adviser who was at the festival with his wife, Louise, and daughter, Courtney, moonlights as a jewelry maker.

"This is just paying for the weekend," he said as he motioned to the jewelry. But more expenses are likely around the corner. "My daughter is looking to buy a horse."

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